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The Alcatraz prison closed its doors on March 21, 1963. The prison had been open for twenty-nine years before shutting down. However, you can still visit Alcatraz Island for tours. Alcatraz City Cruises offers a variety of tours to the island, including activities like audio tours.
A Little History of Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island is approximately one and a half miles off the coast of San Francisco, California. In the 1850s the rugged island was used for military purposes and became home to the very first lighthouse on the West Coast. The first prison was established on the island in the late 1850s. Originally, the U.S. Army held military prisoners during the American Civil War and Spanish American War. In the early 1900s, there was enough manpower to construct a new prison. The 600-cell prison, which is known today as Alcatraz, was finished in 1912 and still stands today. The U.S. Army gave the U.S. Justice Department the rights to Alcatraz in 1933. Alcatraz became a maximum-security prison on July 1, 1934, and housed some of the most notorious inmates like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz. Today, visitors can step foot on Alcatraz and learn about the history of one of the most famous prisons in the United States.
When Did Alcatraz Prison Close?
The Alcatraz prison closed its doors on March 21, 1963. The prison had been open for 29 years before shutting down. However, you can still visit Alcatraz Island for tours. Alcatraz City Cruises offers a variety of tours to the island, including activities like audio tours.
Alcatraz closed for two main reasons. First, the operating expense of the prison was becoming too high. Because Alcatraz was on a small island, all food and supplies had to be shipped over, and overall costs began adding up. For example, since there was no fresh water on the island, one million gallons of water had to be brought to the island each week! The prison was three times more expensive to operate when compared to other federal prisons in the United States.
Second, the prison started crumbling from the harsh salt water. The upkeep of the facility became too much for the U.S. Justice Department to justify. When Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963, there was said to be $3-5 million dollars in maintenance work that would have to be done for the prison to stay open safely. The federal government concluded that it would be cheaper to build an entirely new federal prison instead of paying for the operating and maintenance cost of Alcatraz.
Many believe that the decision to close the prison was due to the disappearance of the three prisoners that escaped the island. Morris and the Anglin brothers planned a detailed escape and did make it off the island, but their bodies were never discovered. They created paper mache heads with real human hair to fool the night guard when doing a room check and made makeshift life preservers by carefully stitching together more than fifty raincoats. Later magazines were found in their cells revealing that this was where the idea was born. During the escape, the men wriggled through a chiseled shaft onto the roof and down a pipe. They climbed two barbed wire fences and placed the boats into the waters. They were never found and presumed dead. This trio was the most famous escape attempt and from this escape, the movie, Escape From Alcatraz debuted in 1978. Interestingly, two inmates escaped before these three and were captured. Seven inmates were shot and killed trying to escape. Two drowned and five are presumed drowned.
What Happened to Alcatraz After It Closed?
After Alcatraz prison closed its doors, there were a lot of proposals for what to do with the space. Some thought to make it a memorial site for the United Nations, while others thought to create a West Coast Statue of Liberty. Instead, the island was abandoned until 1969 when Native Americans claimed the land. The hope was to establish a university and museum, however, in 1971, President Richard Nixon did not allow that to happen. A year later, the island became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was opened to the public. Today, visitors can tour the island and the prison buildings.
How do you visit Alcatraz?
The only way to get on the island of Alcatraz and visit the prison building is by taking an Alcatraz City Cruises ferry, which visitors can catch at Pier 33 at Alcatraz Landing in San Francisco. It is recommended to buy tickets well in advance as tickets can and do sell out. The ferry to the island takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Visitors are going to want to make sure they have two to three hours to visit the entire island to get the full experience.
Notable Things to See in Alcatraz
The Alcatraz Prison
The prison was a three-story cell house with four blocks of cells. The prison included a library, visitation rooms, a barbershop, and the warden’s office.
Gardens of Alcatraz
The Gardens of Alcatraz were first created by the U.S. Army. By the time the United States federal systems took hold of the island, there were hillside terraces with flowers and plants. Prisoners started gardening, and in 1941, inmate Elliot Michener took over building a toolshed and greenhouse. The garden was left to wilt away when the prison closed, but in 2003, the Golden Gate National Parks helped bring the gardens back to life.
This recreation yard was used by the inmates to play sports and intellectual games, such as chess.
The Warden’s House, also called the Hoe House, was next to the Alcatraz Lighthouse. It was once a three-story mansion with fifteen rooms. The house that once held lavish cocktail parties is now in ruins being destroyed during the American Indian Movement Occupation in 1970. Visitors can still see the outline of the house today. It may surprise you to learn that many workers and children lived on the island.
Building 64 was the first construction on the island and was used as military housing for officers and their families.
The Alcatraz Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast. The original lighthouse was built in 1854, and then in 1909, this was replaced with a taller 95-foot lighthouse. Today, visitors can admire the Alcatraz Lighthouse from the ground.
Alcatraz City Cruises Tour Options
Alcatraz Day Tour
The Alcatraz Day Tour includes a ferry ride to and from Alcatraz Island, along with plenty of time to explore the island for yourself! Visitors can take time exploring “The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the United States,” a permanent exhibit that explores the history of Alcatraz and the incarceration rate of the United States, which is the highest in the world. Visitors will also get access to many historical outdoor spaces like the Recreation Yard and the Rose Garden. If visitors keep their eyes open, they may even be able to spot the political messages that were left behind in 1969 by the Native Americans that occupied the island for a few short years.
Alcatraz Night Tour
Visitors can experience a different perspective of Alcatraz Island on the Alcatraz Night Tour. This tour departs for Alcatraz around sunset and takes a different route around the island compared to the Day Tour. Guests will still be able to experience the audio tour and step inside the cell house, but they will also get a live narration about the island on the way to Alcatraz and receive special demonstrations or talks that change nightly.
Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour
The Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour is an exclusive tour of no more than 30 visitors. Guests will go behind the scenes to underground jail cells, tunnels, and special grounds that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors on this tour will also receive all the perks of the Alcatraz Day Tour. Those on this tour will have the option to leave the island during the last day tour or stick around for the night tour. Each year over one million people visit Alcatraz. The island’s layered history offers visitors an opportunity to explore this U.S. Army and military prison period through the federal penitentiary era and the American Indian occupation. Although the prison has been closed since 1963 due to operational costs, it remains a place of intrigue and mystery that continues to draw visitors year after year.
While the Alcatraz Island prison closed, tours are open and available for people across the globe with Alcatraz City Cruises.
Get an inside peek at this former maximum-security prison which served as home to some of the most dangerous civilian prisoners in history.
Original post date: June 23, 2022
Featured in this post
San Francisco, CA
Alcatraz City Cruises
Essential San Francisco